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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 -1859) was the only son of the French engineer and inventor Sir Marc Isambard Brunel  (1769-1849). His father settled in Britain and married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman whom he had known in France in earlier days.

He was born on April 9, 1806 in Britan Street, Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire, where his father was working on block-making machinery.

Brunel was sent to France at the age of 14 to study mathematics and science at the at the College of Caen in Normandy and the Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris. Two years later he returned to England to work with his father.

At the age of 20 Brunel was appointed resident engineer under his father's direction when work on the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe began. He held the post for over two years, when a sudden inundation almost drowned him and brought the work to a standstill. Work recommenced in 1835 and was finally finished in 1843.

The Wapping to Rotherhithe tunnel was the world’s first underwater walkway. By the end of its first year of operation, a million people had passed through.

He once staged a dinner party in the Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for businessmen in 1827 wearing full evening dress.

During his recuperation, Brunel submitted designs for a competition to build a bridge across the Avon Gorge at Bristol. His graceful suspension design, with a record-breaking main span of 192 m (630 ft) eventually won the competition, and work began on the piers. Lack of money, however, meant that the Clifton Suspension Bridge was not finally completed until 1864, after Brunel's death.

Brunel was an innovative and hardworking engineer. He customarily worked an 18-hour day, sleeping at the office, rising at 4am.

He employed a huge number of subcontractors, and treated them all in a high-handed and sometimes brutal manner. People whom Brunel considered incompetent received abusive letters.

Brunel was only five foot tall. Because of his small size he always wore a reinforced top hat to make himself look taller.


Brunel married Mary Horsley in 1836. Their son, Henri Marc Brunel, also enjoyed some success as a civil engineer.

In the long slog to hack and blast the celebrated Box Tunnel through two miles of solid rock between Bath and Swindon, 100 men were killed.

Brunel had a conjuring trick where he made a half-sovereign coin vanish into his mouth and emerge from his ear. In 1843, while performing it for the amusement of his children, Brunel accidentally swallowed a coin which became lodged in his windpipe. A special pair of forceps failed to remove it as did a machine to shake it loose devised by Brunel himself. After several weeks of coughing himself sick, Brunel designed a hinged table to which he was strapped, face down, and upended until his head was pointing towards the floor. The press issued daily reports on the progress of the coin, and eventually it was jerked free. When the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay read the good news, he ran along the street yelling, “It’s out! It’s out!” and nobody asked him what he was talking about.

Brunel worked on the improvement of large guns and designed a floating armoured barge used for the attack on Kronshtadt in 1854 during the Crimean War.

He was responsible for building more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of railway in the West Country, the Midlands, South Wales, and Ireland. Brunel  constructed two railway lines in Italy and was an adviser on the construction of the Victorian lines in Australia and the Eastern Bengal Railway in India.

Brunel had one big failure — an atmospheric railway with trains running on a vacuum tube from Exeter, which closed after troubled trials.

Brunel’s 236 ft steamship Great Western left Bristol on her maiden voyage to New York on April 8, 1838, halving the journey time to 15 days.

Brunel made outstanding contributions to marine engineering with his three ships, the Great Western, Great Britain (1843), and Great Eastern (originally called Leviathan; 1858), each the largest in the world at its date of launching.

The Great Western, a wooden paddle vessel, was the first steamship to provide regular transatlantic service. It confounded critics who asserted that such a vessel would never be able to carry sufficient coal to make the crossing.

The Great Western's maiden departure from Bristol in 1838.

During the Great Western’s maiden voyage to America, Brunel issued instructions from his sickbed after falling off a ladder.

The SS Great Britain was launched on July 19, 1843. It was the first ocean-going craft with an iron hull and screw propeller.
Launch of Great Britain at Bristol, July 1843.

When launched, the Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat. She was the longest passenger ship in the world until 1854.

Great Britain was the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, She did so for the first time in 1845, in the time of 14 days.

The Great Eastern was propelled by both paddles and screw and was the first ship to utilize a double iron hull.

The huge and costly effort of launching the Great Eastern sideways into the Thames in January 1858, and the preparation for its first sea trials the following September, caused Brunel to suffer a stroke. His habit of smoking over 40 cigars a day probably contributed to his stroke.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern

Brunel died ten days later on September 15, 1859 and is buried, like his father, at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

He came second to Sir Winston Churchill in the BBC’s 1999 poll to find the Greatest ever Briton.

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